Hired to curse Israel, Balaam’s journey is thwarted by God’s angel who can be seen first only by Balaam’s donkey. The donkey is given speech to awaken Balaam to the threat.
Balaam is a seer and diviner who has been hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel, because Balak fears Israel’s growing strength. The story of the talking donkey is a humorous way to let the reader know that Balaam, who will describe himself as “one whose eyes are open” (Numbers 24:3) does not actually see the spiritual realm clearly. God must open the eyes of the seer for him to perceive the spiritual realm as clearly as his donkey does (Numbers 22:31). Indeed, seeing and not seeing are central to Balaam oracles. As Balaam sees progressively less of the Israelite camp, due to Balak obscuring his vision by giving him progressively more obstructed views of the Israelite camp, Balaam finally comes to see that God is pleased to bless Israel (Numbers 24:1). This is, of course, exactly what God has told Balaam from the beginning. Balaam the seer is unreliable from the beginning to the end of the story. However, this contention of who sees clearly happens outside of the knowledge and attention of the Israelites – for now. God will turn Balak’s intended curses into blessings, and Israel will continue safely on its way, altogether unaware of either its danger or its rescue.
This passage is a beautiful example of ancient storytelling. Having seen the angel of the Lord with his threatening sword, the donkey tries three times to keep Balaam from going down that path. The tension heightens each time, but Balaam perseveres. Finally, God opens the animal’s mouth, and it argues with Balaam, remarkably reasonably, that it is Balaam who has failed to perceive the truth and attendant danger. The primary surprise in the story is Balaam’s total lack of surprise at hearing the donkey speak.
The angel describes himself as an “adversary” (satan in Hebrew). Here, “satan” is not a personified divine being; the term is simply used in its original sense as an obstacle or opponent. An important theological theme of the story is the assertion that God is protecting the people even from threats they don’t know exist. This is all made even more remarkable by God’s selection of Balaam, someone from outside of Israel, to bless the people. The ironies of this divine providence are theologically more important (and more interesting) than the strangeness of the story’s details: an outsider is used by God for redemptive purposes; the foreign king’s intended curses are turned to blessings; and the animal sees something that even Balaam, the renowned seer, misses.